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Posted by on May 5, 2011 in International, Politics, Society, War | 25 comments

Who is Obama? Now We Know

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama is not the man many Americans thought he was. This sudden realization has transformed American politics.

The sheer audacity of the successful operation against Osama bin Laden has forced Obama’s friends and foes alike to reassess what they make of a chief executive who defies easy categorization and reveals less about himself than politicians are typically drawn to do.

Obama is hard to understand because he is many things and not just one thing. He has now proved that he can be bold at an operational level, even as he remains cautious at a philosophical level. His proclivity to gather facts and weigh alternatives does not lead automatically, in the venerable phrase, to the paralysis of analysis. It can also end in daring action tempered by prudence — for example, making sure that additional helicopters were available to our Navy SEALs.

The president’s rhetoric has often emphasized caring, compassion and community, the language one expects from a moderately liberal politician. Yet as one of his close aides told me long ago, there is inside a very cool, tough, even hard man. Obama is not reluctant to use American military power. He was not at all queasy about authorizing the killing of an American enemy and the disposal of the body at sea to ensure that there would be no memorial to rally bin Laden’s followers.

Obama told us who he is in one of the most celebrated statements he made — about the war in Iraq — before he ran for president. His listeners tended to pay far more attention to the war he criticized than to his reasons for criticizing it. “I am not opposed to all wars,” he declared in 2002. “I’m opposed to dumb wars.” Note when it comes to armed conflict, the word “dumb” is not typically part of the lexicon of a moralist.

The fact that Obama is not a moralist has led to many of the frustrations vented about him over the last 27 months. Liberals don’t get why it takes him so long to get around to taking on the political right over the fundamental purposes of government and the requirements of social justice. Advocates of democracy and human rights ask why he was so slow to invoke the word “democracy” as a touchstone of his foreign policy, and why he was so guarded in his initial response to the Arab Spring.

Supporters of a muscular and interventionist American foreign policy suspect him of believing that the decline of the United States is unavoidable and of seeing himself primarily as a steward whose task is to manage our steady loss of influence.

It is this last claim that took such a profound blow when Obama approved the operation against bin Laden and chose the riskiest option involving a face-to-face confrontation with American commandos — on the orders of the president of the United States.

Obama’s conceptual complexity means that he rejects the idea that there are just two alternatives: the United States as the world’s sole superpower, or an America slinking off into weakness and irrelevance. Binary choices are not for him.

Instead, he sees a world in which new powers — China most obviously, but also India and, someday, Brazil — inevitably rise to challenge American dominance. The United States’ task is not to prevent the ineluctable emergence of other strong nations. Its imperative is to remain an enormously powerful force fully capable of shaping the globe’s new arrangements, defending its interests and values, and prospering in an ever more competitive environment.

And anyone who doubted our willingness to project our might as we see fit will have second thoughts after the events in Abbottabad.

This single action does not “change everything” because nothing ever changes everything. Killing one man does not settle two messy wars. Obama’s political standing will ultimately rise or fall largely on the basis of domestic issues and economic circumstances. The president’s supporters will again experience bouts of frustration when his philosophical caution prevails over his bold streak in the less martial work of negotiating budgets and promoting the general welfare at home. His opponents will not suddenly embrace his priorities.

But because he ordered this attack, and because it was successful, no one will ever view Barack Obama in quite the same way again.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at) (c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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Copyright 2011 The Moderate Voice
  • Somehow, I don’t think it’s going to make that much difference. After the celebrations are over, we’re going to realize that nothing has changed.


  • StockBoyLA

    Absolutely right- nothing has changed about Obama. Rather people are beginning to understand who he is and that he is 100% American and will fight to protect America and wants America to be great.

  • EEllis

    Man! I think Obama deserves credit for the good that happens just like he takes hits with the bad but there is such a thing as over reaching. Allowing the inteligence comunity to do their job deserves a pat on the back but it is not a transforming event no matter how big the result.

  • ShannonLeee

    I gotta wonder… is the left and right afraid this event will cause the country to unify?

    Move along, nothing to see here.

  • DaGoat

    Nothing has changed about Dionne, that’s for sure.

  • merkin

    ShannonLee said:

    gotta wonder… is the left and right afraid this event will cause the country to unify?

    It is sad but this is true. We spend so much time and effort on the things that divide us that we are actually surprised when something occurs that unities us.

  • DLS

    Dionne can’t even succeed at being a straightforward immediate-kiddie-impulse bandwagon-hopper.

  • Dave Hemmann

    For those who say “Nothing has changed,” I would agree.

    The economy didn’t nose-dive into depression thanks in part to his stimulus package that kept State governments and unemployed from destitution.

    The health care for the millions of people who have insurance didn’t change even though an avenue for an extra 2-5 million now have a way to avoid economic demise due to pre-existing conditions or loss of job.

    Nothing has changed with our projected persona to the Muslim world where a respectful burial and no photos replace “Spike the ball” decks of cards and trophy shots of wired up captives.

    I’d be happy to go on to list other changes to our American politics, how for example, “birthers” have made complete fools of themselves while Obama actually addresses the needs of the country instead of reacting to fictional divergences designed distract from real issues, but I think I’ve made my point.

  • Dave Hemmann


    Can’t you just once stay off commentators and on subject? If you see nothing has changed, demonstrate your point.

  • DLS

    I’m sorry you misinterpret what people post on here sometimes, Dave. (I’m not the only one to note Dionne’s failures, obviously.)

    Dionne has been wrong time after time, failed time after time to “score” with anyone who chooses to be informed rather than be a stupid Herd member, and this was another example of it.

    I’ve done nothing wrong, but as a big bonus to you and others I’ll substitute something much better that was laudatory of Obama (not making stupid claims that this is the new, true, permanent Obama).

    (It’s from a rare thing, a good liberal source, with not only good writing and argumentation but even attractive fonts rather than trendy crap, as a bonus to discriminating as well as competent readers. It may not get through to all author-commenters on here, who are hung up on silliness or worse, but those who can will appreciate it. Yep, I may just post more links to this publication site.)

    You’re welcome.

  • Dr. J

    Because he ordered this attack, and because it was successful, no one will ever view Barack Obama in quite the same way again.

    I confess I’m viewing Obama in much the same way I did before.

    I suppose it’s nice to get some closure on OBL, if you’re not too hung up on niceties like due process, but it’s hard to imagine that changing much in the mideast.

    Props to the president for overseeing a successful mission rather than a catastrophe. IMHO this action gives us little new information about him. It confirmed his cautious, collaborative approach (as opposed to Bush in Baghdad, for example), but that approach was already well known. I think nearly every presidential decision demands courage, I just didn’t see a new level of it this week. It’s hard to imagine any president finally catching up with the villain of the century and walking away. We’ve seen Obama’s cold-bloodedness before, too, in decisions to ramp up predator drone strikes in Pakistan, recommit to war in Afghanistan, and to bomb Libya.

    Not much new here. I’m left with much the same ambivalence about Obama I had before.

  • JSpencer

    Another thoughtful and insightful column by EJD. I heard that part of Obama’s “no drama” demeanor was learned during that portion of his life as a boy in Indonesia, where there exists a youth culture in which people are often teased and tested to see how easily they can be ruffled. The ones who are the most unflappable are the ones most respected. Obama’s calm approach is a welcome one imo, but that should be construed to mean it’s a laid back approach.

    I understand why many progressives are impatient with Obama, but in the interest of realism, they need to consider that many of the changes they desire will involve re-weaving the tapestry – over time. We live in an era where people prefer to identify and categorize others instantly. The concept of growing and learning who others really are doesn’t fit with our culture of immediacy. I expect to have criticisms of Obama in the future, but I don’t expect to have any buyers remorse.

  • JSpencer

    In the apparent absence of editing ability (?) the last sentence of my first paragraph should read, “… should not be construed …”

  • JSpencer

    Dave, welcome to DLS land. 😉

  • DaGoat

    @ Dr. J

    Not much new here. I’m left with much the same ambivalence about Obama I had before.

    Kind of the way I feel, too. I like that he had the guts to approve the raid, but I don’t see this as a defining moment.

    And if he doesn’t like dumb wars, why has he started one and escalated another?

  • JSpencer

    DaGoat, what war did Obama start? Are you referring to Libya? If so, I wouldn’t exactly call it a “war”.

  • DaGoat

    What would you call it, JSpencer? Is it still a kinetic military action, whatever that is? And what is the difference between a kinetic military action and war?

  • TheMagicalSkyFather

    DaGoat-without boots on the ground in large numbers we call those police actions since around the 1950’s. I would also say Afgh was far from a “dumb war” but instead one that was very much in our interests though I think we were way to late to that prom to make a difference.

  • DaGoat

    MSF – if we’re in Afghanistan too late to make a difference that sounds kind of dumb to me.

  • TheMagicalSkyFather

    DaGoat-I would have to agree to a point. Meaning it takes time to figure that out and I am hoping that OBL’s death will allow us to bow out sometime in the next 6 or so months. Afgh AQ is already splitting from AQ and the real AQ problem is now reported to be in Paki anyway. I fully supported the widening of Afgh war into Paki since prior to the 2008 election but at this point I am long past war weary and think it is time to begin the process of getting out of there. Although a strong argument could be made that it is wise to keep troops in the area ready to march into Paki if AQ gets to powerful but AQ is not what it was.

  • I expect that the wars will continue to languish, as will the budget talks. President Obama’s polls will get a temporary boost, but congress’s polls won’t.

    The “nothing” in “nothing will change” was meant to mean … no thing.

  • Dave Hemmann


    Dionne produced a rational and nuanced analysis of Obama’s presidential style. For example, his point that O does not fall for false binary choices because he know these are false choices.

    Your response?
    “Dionne can’t even succeed at being a straightforward immediate-kiddie-impulse bandwagon-hopper.”

    Your statement ignores every single premise and merely resorts to personal attack. You say other people do the same. I’m talking to you.

    I believe a real discussion could occur between us, but there’s just no reason to try if you keep tossing crap against the wall and call it ART!

    Elevate your game man, it’s a good one.

  • Dr. J

    Dionne produced a rational and nuanced analysis of Obama’s presidential style.

    “Analysis” means “separation into component parts” and isn’t quite the right word for Dionne’s hagiography…unless you give him points for separating the good parts of Obama’s style from the even more super fantastic parts.

    He lost me at his absurd second sentence: “This sudden realization has transformed American politics.” Someone get this man some pom-pons.

  • DLS

    [sigh] Dave H., don’t count on everyone like Dionne to claim Obama is a new, permanently god-like man again.

  • Dave Hemmann

    Dr J

    The second sentence follows the first. The Right has tried to paint Obama as a socialistic, a radical, a Muslim, a non -American, and on and on and on.
    Sorry man, but only the most dense in our population have begone to figure out the republican slime machine makes stuff up out of whole cloth.

    Or were you lost in the second sentence because you believe the meme? just asking, as obama’s list of accomplishments in two plus years may be one of the most professional handling of inherited crisis by any a new president.

    and no, I’ll not waste my time writing down the historical record. Try looking for it on Red State, where they have uncovered an obama plot to have all new babies be born naked.

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